Revelling in Ravel
The harp had a big night at last Saturday evening’s concert of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). It figured prominently in all three pieces on the program—Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess”; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”. That’s very special.
Also, special was the guest conductor Simone Young who made her debut with the SFS with these concerts.
The Australian conductor is no novice. I saw her conduct twenty years ago at the Metropolitan Opera and over the years she has performed regularly in the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls.
In former seasons, a program like this would have been conducted by Charles Dutoit, who has become persona non grata at the SFS and other musical venues in the US because of his #Me Too troubles.
It is perhaps poetic justice that his place should be taken by a woman conductor though Dutoit undoubtedly would have done a great job.
By far, the best thing about last evening’s concert was the Ravel Piano Concerto played by the superb French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. This is a great piece from 1932, full of energy, inventiveness and exuberance.
Ravel had been to the US in the late 20’s and apparently had been very much influenced by the jazz he had heard there-- and particularly the jazz music of George Gershwin. In the Concerto’s first movement, there are direct takes from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.
Lortie, fully in sync with the jazz idiom of those days, did the music full justice. It is clear he is a great jazz player as well as classical virtuoso.
Lortie was able to combine both these talents in the Ravel and, joined by Ms. Young and the outstanding SF players gave the San Francisco public a rousing, wonderfully bright performance of this masterpiece.
The Concerto’s slow movement, the incredibly lovely and moving Adagio, was alone worth the price of admission. Michael Steinberg, the noted scholar, wrote in the program notes that, “The Adagio is the reason we not only delight in this concerto but truly love it.”
Those who know Ravel only by his overplayed and overrated ‘Bolero’ should listen to the Adagio of the G-Major Piano Concerto; then and only then will they understand the true greatness of this French master.
Ravel is not the only genius of the inter-War period. Many great composers were active at this time, so much so that the period can be called a true Golden Age of composers.
The list of names from that period boggles the mind--Prokofiev, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Shostakovich and God knows how many more.
Why the Golden Age arrived when it did and why it stopped is a source of unending controversy and speculation.
Ms. Young did a great job with the Ravel—but the “Scheherazade” was a mixed bag. There was a lot of good things in it—Young’s sense of drama, the sweeping fast tempos that were so exciting and her overall expansiveness in conducting the piece.
Ms. Young is a woman conductor who is not afraid to move her body wherever the music might take it!
Still, one couldn’t escape the lack of nuance, the ear-splitting fortissimos and the over-the-top, too-much-is-not-enough quality to her interpretation that seriously detracted from one’s enjoyment of the piece.
For all the very real excitement and drama, the performance was vulgar and exhausting. Concertmaster Barantschik’s extensive violin solo parts sounded wane and pallid in the din.
A nice gesture came at the very beginning of the evening when Ms. Young dedicated the opening Pavane to Notre Dame that had been severely damaged in a fire earlier in the week. The piece is short and beautiful, another example of Ravel’s great lyric gift.